No stars shone through the store's large front windows, no light at all but the snowy parking lot glistening under its lights. I yearned for the baristas to start the coffee. Meanwhile Guillermo Ortiz-Rodriguez, called Orty-Rod by us when he wasn't looking, burqueño malo by Manuel, Margarita, and Glency who made the guacamole and fruit cups, etc. in the back, Guillermo to his face. He'd prefer to be called, military-style, by his full last name or else his full baptized name which included the word Hidalgo, which he liked. This leader of ours paced before his dozy squad of produce workers.
Orty-Rod's energy crackled. Our leader had not only drunk the company Kool-Aid but spiked it with his own . . . honor, perhaps, or whatever superhuman ambition animated him to pursue an excellence that was entirely, it seemed to me, unrealistic. They paid us well enough but not that well. I looked it up, and we got right at a living wage for our area according to MIT's online calculator. Guillermo simply acted under a different set of priorities. If he were in The Sun Also Rises, he would be an aficiónado of one sort or another: one who pursues excellence in a thing only for the thing itself, out of a weird, destined kind of love.
I am not sure I believe in afición. It's a fine idea, but who has the energy for true excellence?
“Teamwork,” said Orty-Rod, hands clasped behind his perfectly straight back, “Teamwork is what will put us above the projections. Not quickness, not cutting corners, but teamwork. Yes?”
We nodded. We could not but, against Guillermo's snake-charmer eyes.
“Not the speed, skill, and conscientiousness of one good person. It means that all of us, good and bad, awake and tired, function according to the same system, the same time, consistently. In this way, the burden of success is on no one person but on the team.” Our leader darkened, his eyes glittering. “I will not tolerate laziness. You all know that I do not expect the busting of asses every day—that is unsustainable—but I do require constant attention to the task. There will be no dragging feet, daydreaming, dawdling in conversation. If you want to talk, work side by side, but work. Understood?”
We nod again. Manuel more than the rest because he jerked back awake.
There is something stirring about a man like Ortiz-Rodriguez. Even at that early hour, his old-fashioned mustache shone, his shirt was ironed with creases sharp as sabers coming down from, yes, epaulets. Guillermo was totally possessed of himself, an act I had thought impossible for all but those who could afford personal staff. Perhaps Ortiz-Rodriguez is only the exception to the rule that humanity can only ever be half-assed. I hope he is the real thing—an example of what we could be.
At the end of Orty-Rod's speech, he gave the familiar talk about each of us having the authority and responsibility to run our sections of the floor, a disbursement of power he learned from John Boyd, a military strategist and the greatest fighter pilot the world has ever known. We hear about John Boyd at every meeting.
By the time our meeting ended the sun had not broken the horizon. Nonetheless, impatient customers glared at us through the doors. I looked and the keen muscles of the barista's forearms were beautiful as she filled the carafes.
Those early patrons weren't the people-liking type. They poked through the hard rack without making much eye contact, which was fine because I didn't want to acknowledge other people until I'd had coffee. However, I could not escape the one lady who wears patched clothes, peers at us through half-feral gray eyes, and insists her clients are stringent on vegetable quality. Who these clients are, or what their clientage consists of, no one knows. I call her Aughra, after the venerable but grumpy Muppet in The Dark Crystal. It's mean, I know, but if you worked retail you would understand.
Aughra caught me. She said, “Is there any better-looking yellow squash?” I had just put out a new case of yellow squash. I went to the back (she yelled after me, “Organic!”) where Manuel and the morning crew had the load blocking everything. I shimmied past full, towering pallets to see, no, no newer yellow squash—except one case, on a pallet, under a few rows of fifty-pound carrot boxes. So I played the most dangerous game of Jenga, tapping out the squash box and hoping not to die under an avalanche of root vegetables.
I brought them out. “Here, ma'am, these just came in an hour ago.”
Aughra picked through the new box, tossing squash this way and that. She seemed satisfied with the ones she kept.
In the distance I saw carafes of coffee standing ready, and the placard for Black Lightning—the best coffee I'd ever had, the elixir of life. I went to the back to ask for a break since the supervisors had disappeared. “Guillermo?” I called. No answer. In the cooler ahead, MR's radio played hip hop: “I'm on the Mexican radio-o-o-o . . .” “MR,” I said, “Have you seen Guillermo?” Leo came around the corner and ran into me as he was telling Manuel about “. . . de este pinche—oh! Sorry, my friend.”
“Have you seen Guillermo?”
Thus began a long story about how, when Leo grew up in Mexico, as teenagers they would go into somebody's corn field, half-drunk, and build a fire right there to roast the corn they pulled directly off the stalks. They didn't care; they were drunk and kids and didn't have the sense to have responsibility yet. Anyway they left when the farmer started shooting at them. But kids today, it's all screens and video games; they don't go outside and do things. But then again, it shouldn't be going out and stealing corn and starting fires and getting drunk, but it's still not a good situation. When people don't go outside they cannot learn to be part of the world. They think only their lives are important and they don't see how much they depend on other people. This is how they can look down on us who work in grocery stores—they forget that the world needs people to grow zucchini and potatoes and peppers, people to ship them, people to put them on the shelf and keep them fresh. Only in a country that has forgotten what it is to be part of the world can such people go without honor. And no, he hadn't seen Guillermo.
“That was a good story, Leo.”
Thus began not a second story but a reiteration of the themes of the first, and how Leo's son finally talked him into getting a smartphone and now the kid's on it all the time talking to girls, which maybe isn't bad, but Leo still wishes he would go out more because life is supposed to be more than sitting at home and only talking to people you already know.
“Thanks, Leo. I'm going to find Orty-Rod now.”
“Okay my friend.”
I tried to circle through the backroom but Margarita's reggaeton was un-deal-with-able until I'd had some Black Lightning—the platonic Form of Coffee. Back, then, to the floor, where an Irishman intercepted me. He immediately insisted that the founder of our company was a two-faced crook.
I was all ears. Listening to conspiracy theories is good customer service.
“You know he started out selling cocaine on the side, don't you?”
“How do you know that?”
“Oh, I know people who've worked with the company for a long time and they told me.”
A little later into the conversation: “Caribbean banana trade agreements and monopolies. You ever seen, I mean ever put out, a banana from Jamaica?”
“No, sir, not one.”
“You think that's a coincidence? The one country that stood up to the big US importers, and now they're fucking starving.”
And, toward the tail end: “Some of these people aren't really people. They only look like people. They are the reptilians among us.”
“Like . . . aliens?”
“Maybe interdimensional, maybe from Alpha Draconis.”
“How can you tell which people are reptilians?” I genuinely wanted to know, because this theory that some people were actually evil, shapeshifting, snake aliens resonated with my customer service experience.
“You watch them. You can tell. They also breathe funny.”
I saw a clear path to the coffee and decided to peel away. “I will pass this information along to my supervisor.”
He waved me off with this parting shot: “It's all a game, son. When you know that, that's when you can make a real choice.”
The aisle past the wet rack seemed to be my best bet for navigating through the least customer interaction on the way to the coffee bar. I moved. A woman beside me sighed a great sigh and asked, “Is there any better-looking yellow squash in the back?”
“I'll check and see, ma'am, just a moment,” I said, and kept moving toward coffee. Then a man in a ten-gallon hat barked, “Arugula!” which I suppose was a question. I raised my hand to point at the salad wall. “With the salads, sir!” Then MR sort of boxed me out and ran to the back. Soon I saw why: Miss Havisham—again, not her real name—touched my arm, and it became a fondle, which became a caress, which became the tender question, “Which are the best apples, young man?” An icy shiver hit my spine. We all knew to avoid Miss Havisham. She was pansexual in her inappropriate behavior.
“Braeburn, ma'am, I think,” I said, snaking out of her amorous grip. I made it perhaps ten feet before an elderly man wearing a yarmulke stopped me. He said, “Black radishes.”
“They are radishes, but black.”
“What do black radishes taste like?”
The man nodded and considered this. He asked, “Do you know any poetry?”
“I suppose I do, yes.” Not far away people pumped Black Lightning into their cups—what if they ran out? What if a new carafe wasn't ready? What if that was the last batch for today?
The man watched me. He wanted poetry. I recited, “So much depends upon the red wheelbarrow glazed with rain water beside the white chickens.”
He shook his head. “That doesn't even rhyme.”
My extroversion tank was down to fumes. I moved past the gentleman toward coffee. “Arugula!” shouted another, different man, this one in a Clint Eastwood poncho.
I said, “We're out!” Most of the time it was true.
Guillermo caught me by my apron. I do not know where he came from.
“What have you done so far today?” Orty-Rod asked.
“I put out squash,” I said. “Twice.”
“Why twice?” and before I could answer: “Did you finish the hard rack?”
“Not finished, I was going to get—“
Orty-Rod sighed. Still dragging me, he began a lecture. “Each of us has a responsibility, and I expect you to take this work as your duty here. See, others are looking at you: your fellow produce department workers, the customers to whom you represent this store and this company, and all the other workers at the store, not least of which leadership—“ here our leader glanced up at the managers' offices that watched over the store. In his face was an uncharacteristic disdain. Normally respect, duty, and all those starched-sounding attitudes clung to him like the musky cologne he wears, so disdain was notable and a bit unnerving.
Orty-Rod continued, “For ours is not to reason why, but to do or die. But a principle of leadership—a basic one at that— is to explain exactly why one expects his team to do something. Out of common respect, but also so that the members may act independently to achieve the goal. A leader should also fight for the well-being of his people. Or hers. Ours do not, regrettably.” We came to a stop by the potatoes, which were the farthest things from the coffee bar. “Work the potato set. This looks disgraceful. When you finish these you should get back on the hard rack.”
“Could I have my break first, sir?” I didn't normally call Orty-Rod “sir,” but he seemed especially imperious that day. “And are you okay?”
Orty-Rod peered at me. It was not easy to look him in the eyes for very long. “You—“ Guillermo began, before the intercom called him to the manager's office. He spun on his heels away from me, giving no further answer.
I set to the potatoes. As their fragrant clove oil clouded around me, I began to daydream about the secret lives of our worst customers. I imagined a group of them sitting around a conference room table. Before them an instructor stands with a whiteboard listing “Ways to Drive Retail Workers Crazy.” One raises her hand: “Ooo! You could leave gum in the tangerine displays!” Another: “Fill up a cart with items and leave it somewhere!” “Be vaguely racist!” “Find something they've changed and complain about it!” The instructor smiles, copying each suggestion to the whiteboard. Finally he says, “Okay everyone, are we ready?” “Yeah!” and these adults board a shuttle to the nearest grocery store, filled with excitement at the prospect of ruining someone's day.
I daydreamed further, wandering into sociology. I came to these conclusions all based on observations in that store: first, that the rich have actually been trained to demand what they want. Perhaps they demand it in polite or aggressive ways, but they have a fundamental attitude that all rules are secondary to the rule that they deserve those things they want. Meanwhile, the middle class is taught that they must earn the things they want, which becomes the primary rule by which they view their own lives and rights and those of everyone else. Finally the poor are given such a neurotic complex about not deserving anything at all that they come into the game already feeling defeated, or else like they're thieves.
I also believe, although with less confidence, there is a dark impulse among the baby boomers to actually destroy the millennial generation. Conversely to Harold Bloom's idea that the children feel compelled to kill the parents and take their place, it's filicide so that the elders never lose control.
An hour into the potatoes, I was daydreaming on these and similar themes (Oompa Loompa doompety-daad / What do you do when a customer's . . . bad?) when a large cart clattered into the department. The savory smell of roasted green chile filled the store like a vision of a saint. I immediately followed.
In the backroom, Margarita's reggaeton was still going, but MR had started up the soundtrack to American Graffiti over it. “You want to try one? This is a good batch.” MR pulled a rack of steaming, charred chile from the stand of them.
I said earlier that I no longer believe in afición. Roasted green chile is an exception. MR has taught me the way he roasts them, and it is nothing short of an art. “You spray them 'til they glisten like emeralds in the sun. They got to have water or the skin won't peel evenly. Three times you spray them, maybe more for the hot ones. Then you watch. When they're all turning over together, that's when they're done. You got to know it, like a heart and soul thing. When they roll like waves on the beach, all together like that.”
MR picked out a chile and scraped the skin off with the back of his knife. I did the same. “How hot are these?” I asked, laying one on a tortilla.
MR laughed. “Man, these are extra hot.”
I took a bite, then another. I hiccupped. They were indeed hot, but there was more: I felt my hands, my scalp, my eyes, and my mind sharpened past daydreams to mindful focus. I gobbled the pepper before the heat overcame me. The hiccups grew worse but I also felt a strength that hadn't been there before, as though that heat put steel into my spine. Perhaps it was afición itself; the strength that comes from real things. Whatever this new blessing was, I thanked MR between gasps of cooling breath and set my face toward the coffee bar, where I knew nothing would stop me from getting my Black Lightning—that nectar of the gods.
A lady to the right of me: “Isn't there any better-looking spinach in the back?”
“No ma'am, we're out!”
A Frenchman to the left of me: “This mâche blend, it looks terrible! Why can't Americans stock some goddamned good salad?”
“It's from Canada sir, don't blame us!”
I met eyes with Shakti, our tattooed barista. She smiled, knowing of my love for coffee.
Guillermo cut between us. Putting an arm around me, he wheeled me from the beatific sight of the coffee bar and said in a rushed whisper, “You asked if I was okay. It is not only I but our entire department which is not okay, and perhaps the whole store. Under all but the most extreme circumstances grievances should go up the chain of command, not down it. Yet today I fear our store leadership has succumbed to fear, or hubris, or incompetence if that be a temporary failing, and their decision-making is suffering for it—as always happens when leaders forsake service, humility, and honor. It is a desperate time, and I must ask something of you.”
“I want coffee, Guillermo.”
“We may need to circumvent leadership until they regain their senses—tell no one I spoke to you of this. For a long time I have shielded you, my team members, from the bullshit the regional passes down. Now it appears I have two streams of bullshit, one from regional and one from store leadership, which I must dam or divert some way. It may be too much. That is why I may need the support of the team to do this, to ensure that our success comes before the nonsensical demands from above.” Ortiz-Rodriguez looked me in the eyes. In that brief moment, I was mesmerized by those eyes which held a deep sincerity, a fully competent yet vulnerable human soul. And set, as they were, in a face of manly features and an oiled mustache that suited it, a picture of the balance of toughness and grace—oh God, I was into Guillermo.
“I will inform you and the others when I have made more concrete plans. In the meantime, finish the potatoes. You're taking a disgracefully long time on them.” The sure strength of his grip left me as Guillermo turned away. I thought I might crumple without it.
I reasoned that all the hierarchy above was in chaos, and therefore I could postpone the damn potatoes.
No customers stood between myself and the coffee bar. I finally made it! Shakti's gorgeous dreadlocked head turned to me. I ordered my Black Lightning, paying for it with the coffee discount card I'd signed as Karl Marx. In a fit of glee I bought a blue corn and lavender donut as well. If Jesus Christ had Black Lightning coffee and blue corn lavender donuts at the Last Supper, He would have used them for the Eucharist instead of bread and wine. I took these gifts from Shakti's strong, filigreed hands and made my way through the throng of customers, out to the porch area where no one would be sitting for the cold.
An easy morning light sent gentle shafts through the cottonwood trees. The coffee steamed, my breath steamed, and no meal had ever tasted so good to me. The donut was light and fresh, its glaze fragrant with real lavender. And the Black Lightning—it bit like the hot pepper earlier, that aliveness that only comes from afición: care put into things beyond market value. Its bitterness was not offensive but hard like the reality of the world, like those nighttime prayers that include a line about the inevitability of death. Hard like the toughness in Ortiz-Rodriguez's face; something earned and therefore lasting.
On that porch, alone and in deep enjoyment, I thought about how life is never without toil. One could rail against toil, especially when it mainly benefits someone far away and probably hideous.
Nonetheless, we make our lives as livable as we can, somehow. Even a life in exploited retail work can have its meaning. We defend joy on the battlefield of our hearts, and there alone. Or maybe that was just the coffee talking.
Eventually I rose to return to the sales floor. I felt prepared to tackle the potatoes, if maybe Shakti would allow me to freshen my cup of Black Lightning.
Instead I came in to a shouting match between our store manager, who seemed more like a seasoned horse trainer than a retail personality, several of the assistant managers, and Guillermo. The fight was well underway and Guillermo was halfway through a speech: “ . . . My family came here with de Vargas!”
I skirted the conflict and went into the grocery aisles. A man passed me clinking with bottles hidden on his person. Our store security officer passed soon after, in pursuit. A lady asked me for manuka honey, about which I had no idea, and I took her to the honey. It was situated next to the coffee bins.
Guillermo caught me. His pomaded hair had lost its hold, loosening locks to hang over his darkened face. “Disregard that of which we spoke about earlier. My plans are scuttled, more quickly than I'd hoped. They are placing me on administrative leave for a week. I am sure they will use that time to plan a way to fire me.” Orty-Rod began to front and face cans of chile and enchilada sauce. “Ten years I have worked at this place. Through four store managers, dozens of assistant managers, countless produce workers. During the recession I offered to temporarily cut my own salary to keep on a team member. Of course it wasn't legal so they couldn't do it. I sound like a fool.” Guillermo ceased with the cans. He looked directly at me. His eyes were an ambery green, like a jaguar's or like those of the villain in an old Western I saw once. “I will do what I can,” Guillermo said, “to keep the team running in some kind of sanity, although this company has been growing mad now for years, and may finally begin falling apart from madness.”
Guillermo came close to me. He put his hand on my shoulder. With a deep, human glance, the look of one human being completely toward another, Guillermo said, “Farewell, my friend. As I suppose this must be. Adios.” I expected a speech, or more of one. Instead, Guillermo squeezed my shoulder once, nodded in a gesture of utter respect, and walked away toward the front of the store.
Perhaps a more fitting image would have been Guillermo Hidalgo Santiago Ortiz-Rodriguez silhouetted against a blazing sunset, which did indeed flare through those large front windows in the dusk. But it was only midmorning, and as I watched him go the sight was only of a man, remarkable though not rare, walking among brow-furrowed customers and perfunctory workers under insipid music and crackling calls on the intercom. It brought to mind how, in The Sun Also Rises, we never see the bullfights—as though Hemingway thought they were ineffable things. Rather we are left with the carcass of the bull, lances yet lodged in its strong back, its living blood draining into the dust.
The second cup of coffee is never as good as the first. I thought of this and felt a great emptiness as I watched Guillermo walk out the door, remove his apron, and become just another person in the murmuring, even crowd.